Over the years, my relationship with ‘Dragon Ball Z’ has been tenuous at best. It seems that every time I’ve tried sampling the series, I’ve been turned off by bits of rampant melodrama, multiple macguffins and deus ex machinas, and the fact that most of its climactic battles boil down to which character can hulk out more than a particular baddie. Well, diehard fans will be relieved to learn that after my third, admittedly bumbling review of a ‘Dragon Ball Z’ double-feature, I decided to start plowing my way through the original series. While I’m still no expert in matters concerning the sweeping saga or its complete character arcs, I finally feel as if I’m prepared to deliver a more competent evaluation of FUNimation’s most recent DBZ release.
The studio’s fourth Blu-ray double-feature bundles the third and fourth DBZ films together in one package: ‘Tree of Might’ (originally released in Japan in 1990 between episodes 54 and 55) and ‘Lord Slug’ (which first appeared in 1991 between episodes 82 and 83). ‘Tree of Might’ follows Goku, Yamcha, Krillin, and a few notable others as they fend off a group of alien warriors and attempt to destroy a parasitic plant that’s sapping the lifeforce out of the planet. In the ensuing chaos, Goku and the alien commander, Turles, are forced to take advantage of the tree’s near-limitless power and fight to the death. Boasting a disappointingly similar story, ‘Lord Slug’ focuses on a legendary Super Namekian who was cast out of his homeworld after using his powers for evil. When he and his band of ruffians land on Earth, it’s up to Goku, Gohan, and Piccolo to stop the invading force and keep the planet safe.
Even though I’m beginning to warm up to the series itself, I’ve yet to truly enjoy any of the double-feature specials/films FUNimation has released. Sadly, the situation isn’t any different this time around. ‘Tree of Might’ is a fun but inconsequential quickie and ‘Lord Slug’ is arguably one of the worst DBZ flicks I’ve seen thus far. Neither one adheres to the series’ ongoing continuity, both abandon fundamental personality traits of several heroes to drive the plot along, and each delivers a standalone story that has no direct ramification or influence on the series as a whole. Granted, neither film was written to connect with the canonized mythos, but it doesn’t change the fact that tension is completely neutered because it ultimately doesn’t matter who lives, dies, or yanks their ears off. Worse still, the individual villains are underdeveloped and fail to offer compelling explanations about their motivations or histories. Turles isn’t given a fleshed-out backstory, Lord Slug is little more than a greedy conqueror, and their lackeys are bland and uninteresting.
Furthermore, the movies are essentially carbon copies of each other. Both films involve an invading alien force (one threatens to turn the planet into a vast wasteland, the other a frozen tundra), its attempts to destroy earth, and Goku’s fight to absorb energy from another source to make himself more powerful. Granted, ‘Lord Slug’ has a more clever endgame than ‘Tree of Might,’ but the two stories transplant different villains into the same flashy, rehashed plot. On a lighter note, I have to admit ‘Tree of Might’ is worth a casual watch simply because it’s mildly engaging from beginning to end. While ‘Lord Slug’ drags and sputters throughout, ‘Tree of Might’ is well-paced, nails the passion and scope of its energy-blasting battles, and includes more personable character interactions. It also brings far more heart and soul to the table than ‘Lord Slug,’ injecting solid intensity into the mix.
All in all, this double-feature release won’t win many accolades -- ‘Tree of Might’ is an entertaining (albeit unrelated) entry and ‘Lord Slug’ is one of the most reviled DBZ films available. However, in the context of the series, both flicks will disappoint diehards and newcomers alike. Even completists should approach this release with caution and realistic expectations. As far as I’m concerned, FUNimation needs to pony up and give fans the high-def releases they really want: Full seasons of the original series.
By sheer luck of the draw, this latest ‘Dragon Ball Z’ double-feature offers a faithful 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of both ‘Tree of Might’ and ‘Lord Slug.’ For the uninitiated, some of FUNimation’s recently-released DBZ “films” have actually been 1.33:1 TV movies and specials that were cropped to create faux-widescreen presentations, essentially delivering inaccurate versions of each flick. Thankfully, ‘Tree of Might’ and ‘Lord Slug’ were originally animated in 4:3, yet intentionally framed for a 16:9 theatrical presentation. As a result, FUNimation’s widescreen-or-bust philosophy isn’t a distraction this time around.
Unfortunately, other issues remain. First and foremost, FUNimation’s “remastered” and “digitally restored” presentations have actually been minted using copies that are several generations removed from the original prints. As a result, the production house hasn’t spent nearly as much time remastering either film as they’d like the DBZ fanbase to believe. The films certainly haven’t been subjected to the frame-by-frame restoration FUNimation touted in early promotions (unless you interpret that to mean that each frame did indeed pass through the same machine during a spotty, but generalized, clean-up effort). To make matters worse, both ‘Tree of Might’ and ‘Lord Slug’ suffer from occasional print damage, errant source noise, slight contrast wavering, and a bit of image wobbling.
I’d love to say that the transfer’s decidedly strong palette and impressive clarity completely offset these varied issues, but the presentation simply isn’t as crisp or colorful as other 2D animated films available on the high-def market. While I haven’t been able to track down SD Japanese imports of either film for a better comparison, I can’t imagine that this Blu-ray release offers a substantial upgrade from the US DVDs. Ultimately, it’s a shame that so little time was invested in remastering either presentation. It’s an even bigger shame that FUNimation is so intent on misleading consumers into believing these films have been drastically overhauled when they’ve merely been tossed onto a Blu-ray disc. I can only imagine how remarkable ‘Tree of Might’ and ‘Lord Slug’ would have looked had FUNimation granted them a proper restoration.
Both ‘Tree of Might’ and ‘Lord Slug’ feature a trio of audio options -- a dubbed English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track with Japanese music, a dubbed English TrueHD 5.1 surround track with U.S. music, and an original Japanese mono mix. Like previous DBZ Blu-ray releases, the lossless surround option is a commendable effort, but also highlights the inadequacies of its source and the simplicity of the films’ dated sound design. The rear speakers fail to create an immersive soundfield, LFE support is strong but unwieldy, and directionality and pan transparency are problematic. More distressingly, lazy prioritization continually muffles elements of the soundscape and abandons sound effects during chattier scenes. Still, dialogue is crisp and clear, and the average TrueHD presentation makes the most of what little it’s given.
I just wish FUNimation would rework the original Japanese audio with more care. Personally, I prefer listening to the mono track mainly because it’s tough to criticize an aging source for sounding… well, old. I’ve also never been a huge fan of anime dubs and don’t understand FUNimation’s seeming ambivalence towards subtitled presentations. As it stands, any extra effort could significantly refresh the original audio and give purists something to actually get excited about. For an audio package that prides itself on choice, it’s unfortunate that the studio has yet to offer every available option with remastered, lossless audio.
’Dragon Ball Z: Tree of Might/ Lord Slug’ may be FUNimation’s fourth Blu-ray double-feature, but the studio is completely out of touch if they believe its fanbase wants DBZ films and specials over high-def versions of the original series. Alas, this duo of films won’t win over many disenchanted fans. ‘Tree of Might’ is cool but aimless, and ‘Lord Slug’ is one of the worst DBZ productions I’ve had to endure. This BD release is just as unfulfilling since FUNimation delivers both films with problematic video transfers and audio tracks, and doesn’t bother with any supplemental content. If FUNimation actually took some time to remaster and restore the individual films and specials, these double-feature releases would at least be worth some attention. As it stands, completists and diehards are the only ones who will enjoy much of anything on this disc.
A special thanks to our own Marc Levy for helping me traverse the complex waters of the 'Dragon Ball Z' universe. His availability, expertise, and knowledge on anything and everything DBZ have been invaluable.